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Why Do We Catastrophize? How to End Worst-Case-Scenario Thinking

At the root of most anxiety disorders is what-if thinking. While 90% of our negative thoughts never come to fruition, this fact doesn’t stop us from thinking the worst. Negative what-if thinking causes us to live in a constant state of crisis. We manage one catastrophe to the next and never stop to wonder if our thinking is the problem. But why do people catastrophize while others take things in stride? Here is what we know.

What is Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing occurs when an individual assumes the worst will come true. It typically involves a belief that one is in a more dire situation than normal. Most of the time, the individual mistakenly exaggerates the problems he/she faces.

Catastrophizing is similar to a snowball moving down a snowy mountain. It starts out with a small thought, which escalates into a larger thought, which then induces a state of panic. For example, you may worry about a negative comment your boss said at work to you. Then, you start to think you may get fired. Next, you start worrying about how you are going to find a job in this type of economy. You suddenly imagine that you will be broke and homeless with nowhere to go. Before you know it, you are having a panic attack. Your heart is pounding and you can’t breathe. All of this stemmed from one thought about one negative comment that your boss probably doesn’t remember making.

For the most part, the worst-case scenario never comes true. Even if it did, we typically underestimate our ability to handle the situation. We assume the worst of ourselves and don’t believe we are capable of managing adversity.

What Causes Catastrophic Thinking?

At the root of catastrophic thinking are fear and low self-esteem. We believe we are incapable of handling problems and imagine ourselves helpless. Those who struggle with catastrophic thinking most likely dealt with a traumatic childhood. They may have seen parents who overreacted or panicked about perceived situations. Their parents may have also been perfectionists who criticized them for every mistake.

Or, the child saw a lot of the worst-case circumstances actually come true. A sober alcoholic got drunk, a mother left the house, or both parents lost their jobs. Because these individuals have seen trauma, they imagine it exists around every corner. They view life as frightening and dangerous.

When good things happen to these individuals, they tend to still have an impending sense of doom. Good things don’t happen to people like me, they say. In some circumstances, they actually create their own negative reality on purpose.

Individuals would rather be in charge of a bad situation happening than have it catch them off guard. For example, a woman may start a fight with her husband because she is secretly afraid he is going to leave her. By taking charge of the situation she has created in her mind, she gets to be the one who doesn’t get hurt.

Other types of anxiety disorders, chronic pain, and fatigue can induce catastrophic thinking in even the calmest individuals. A diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, a sudden job loss, or any type of change can also cause what-if-thinking. All of us at one time or another have been prone to catastrophizing. It becomes a problem when it interferes with our everyday life and becomes our normal thought process.

Steps to Eliminate Catastrophic Thinking

While everyone is bound to be negative at one time or another, not all individuals think of life in such dire circumstances. Here are some best practices to eliminate the what-if-thinking process –

· Therapy – Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective at getting to the root cause of what-if-thinking in both chronic pain patients and individuals with anxiety disorders. Therapists teach patients ways to adjust their thinking patterns to become more rational.

· Mindfulness – Mindfulness helps patients get back into the precious present moment. Mindfulness can be achieved through regular meditation, clearing one’s thoughts, and walks in nature. Many have found prayer a way to induce mindfulness.

· Medications – If a patient’s catastrophic thinking is related to another existing mental health condition, medication may be a viable option. SSRIs and other antidepressants have been helpful tools in conjunction with therapy.

Remember – So What If?

Next time you have a what-if thought, remember to tell yourself that you can handle anything that comes your way. Try to think about the worst-case scenario and whether you could handle it. Be realistic. In all honesty, there is no doubt that you could. Then ask yourself whether you truly believe this what-if thought will actually come true. The answer is, probably not.

Ask yourself what is truly bothering you. Was it really that comment your boss said, or are you simply unhappy at your job and afraid to leave? Get to the root of the problem, as what-if-thinking is a distraction to remove us from the present moment. This can help you to slow your thoughts down and get back into reality. Remember that very few, if any, of our negative thoughts come to pass.

Do you struggle with what-if-thinking? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.

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